Robert F. Ellsworth

Gerald Ford Administration

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December 23, 1975–January 10, 1977

Robert F. Ellsworth became the 16th Deputy Secretary of Defense on December 23, 1975. He holds the distinction as the first and only second Deputy Secretary of Defense in history.

Ellsworth was born on June 11, 1926, in Lawrence, Kansas. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering from the University of Kansas in 1945 and a law degree from the University of Michigan School of Law in 1949. He joined the Navy in 1944, and at the end of the Second World War, he was deployed to the Pacific, serving in minesweepers cleaning up American B-29 magnetic mines off the coast of China. He reentered the Navy in 1950 when the Korean War erupted and returned to the minesweepers. He spent his last year in the service in Naples, Italy, as the executive officer of the Military Sea Transportation Service. He left active duty as a Lieutenant Commander in 1953. Between 1954 and 1960, Ellsworth worked as an assistant to the vice chairman of the Federal Maritime Board (1953), as a teacher at the Kansas School of Business (1954–1955), and in private legal practice (1955–1961). In 1960, after being involved in local Kansas politics and campaigning on behalf of gubernatorial candidates, Ellsworth himself was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives representing Kansas’ third congressional district. He served two terms and made an unsuccessful bid to win a Senate seat in 1966. As a congressman, he served with Gerald Ford and Donald Rumsfeld, under whom he later worked in the executive branch.

Ellsworth first met Richard Nixon in 1960 when the then-Vice President was running for President. Nixon campaigned in Kansas, attending a rally at the Kansas City National Guard Armory, where Representative Ellsworth joined his fellow Republican Kansans on behalf of the nominee. After a chance encounter with Nixon on a flight from Washington, DC, to Chicago in 1966 led to his reestablishing his acquaintance with Nixon, Ellsworth traveled with Nixon around the world on “fact-finding missions” to the Soviet Union, Western Europe, and Asia. Ellsworth then became Nixon’s national political director during the 1968 presidential campaign. When Nixon became President, he rewarded Ellsworth by first making him an Assistant to the President and then U.S. Ambassador to NATO. He served at this post from 1969 to 1971. When he resigned, he joined Lazard Freres, an investment banking firm. In 1974, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger asked him to come back to Washington to serve as the Assistant Secretary of Defense (ASD) for International Security Affairs (ISA). Ellsworth agreed, but he only wanted to stay on the job temporarily. In late fall 1975, Ellsworth informed Schlesinger of his intent to leave the Pentagon, but before Ellsworth could depart, President Gerald Ford fired Schlesinger and replaced him with his Chief of Staff, Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld and Ford both pressed Ellsworth to remain in Washington and serve as the second Deputy Secretary of Defense.

The second Deputy Secretary of Defense position was created by Public Law 92-596 on October 27, 1972. At that time Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and his Deputy, David Packard, had endorsed the recommendations of the 1970 Blue Ribbon Defense Panel, which had reviewed the Defense Department’s organization and operations and which had recommended the establishment of three additional Deputy Secretaries with varying responsibilities. While Nixon rejected the prospect of adding two more Deputy Secretaries of Defense, he acquiesced to Laird’s insistence on a second Deputy. In their testimony before congressional committees on behalf of a second Deputy, both Laird and Packard argued that another Deputy would alleviate the management burdens on the Secretary and existing Deputy. In fact, Packard told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he served on 15 interagency committees concerned with national security issues. And because the problems of defense were so “frequent and complex,” neither he nor Laird could devote their full attention to each situation. Congress agreed and passed the legislation authorizing a second Deputy, and President Nixon signed the bill in October. Laird, however, left office before he had a chance to recommend someone for the new position. Laird’s successor, Elliot Richardson, served only a brief term and never had the opportunity to fill it. During Schlesinger’s tenure, the Defense Department contemplated submitting a draft bill to Congress to authorize the President to either nominate a second Deputy or elevate the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Ellsworth’s title at that time, to an Under Secretary. Ford, however, declined to approve the proposed legislation, leaving Schlesinger feeling that he had been “rebuffed by the White House.”

When Ford selected Donald Rumsfeld as his new Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld persuaded the President to submit to the Senate a nominee for the second Deputy’s post. Rumsfeld wanted to avoid handling intelligence issues and he also bristled at the thought of working exclusively with Deputy Secretary of Defense William Clements, who had been serving since January 1973 and whom Ford refused to fire. When Rumsfeld learned that Ellsworth wanted to leave the Pentagon, he asked him to stay, fill the second Deputy’s position, and handle intelligence issues. Ellsworth acquiesced to his former congressional colleague. He was confirmed on December 19, 1975, and took the oath of office on December 23.

With two Deputies in the Defense Department’s civilian chain of command, there would undoubtedly be questions concerning order of precedence. Congress had queried Laird about this very issue during their hearings on the second Deputy’s post. By law, the Deputy Secretary of Defense followed the Secretary of Defense in the order of precedence, as the Deputy has the power to act for and exercise the powers of the Secretary in his absence or disability. Laird had suggested to the House Armed Services Committee that one Deputy be designated with precedence over the other. Congress agreed and included a provision in the law creating the second Deputy mandating the President decide order of precedence. On December 10, 1975, before Ellsworth was even confirmed, Ford sent a memo to Rumsfeld appointing Clements as the principal Deputy Secretary of Defense. As the second Deputy, Ellsworth had authority to exercise the powers of the Secretary of Defense on intelligence issues or any other matter not assigned to Clements. He would also be acting Secretary of Defense in Clements’s and Rumsfeld’s absences.

Ellsworth’s specific designation as the Deputy Secretary of Defense for intelligence coincided with the Ford administration’s preoccupation with intelligence issues. Beginning in 1973, a series of news articles exposed the clandestine activities at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), including efforts to raise a sunken Soviet submarine, and the revelation of the Agency’s so-called “Family Jewels” chronicling illegal wiretapping, domestic surveillance, and assassination plots against foreign leaders. In early 1975, Ford responded by commissioning a Blue Ribbon Panel chaired by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to investigate the CIA’s misconduct. Concurrently, the Senate organized its Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities under Chairman Frank Church (D-ID). After months of congressional hearings and more damaging revelations, Ford fired Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) William Colby. By early 1976, the President approved a restructured Intelligence Community within the federal government. On February18, he issued Executive Order (EO) 11905, which among other mandates affecting intelligence activities, created the Committee on Foreign Intelligence (CFI). Comprising the DCI as chairman, Deputy Secretary of Defense, and Deputy National Security Advisor, CFI reported to the National Security Council and was charged with devising budgets and resources for the National Foreign Intelligence Program (NFIP). The CFI also set policy priorities for collecting intelligence and established policy for the management of the NFIP. Ellsworth recalled that the CFI’s creation was timely because “a number of revolutionary technologies were developing to the point where they could be deployed in systems if you wanted to spend the money. That created tremendous budget issues.”

CFI’s extra layer of bureaucratic oversight of agencies’ intelligence budgets stepped on the Pentagon’s toes. CFI Chairman, and DCI, George Bush raised several issues regarding the Defense Department’s intelligence budget process. Among his concerns was that the Defense intelligence community had been responding to CFI staff inquiries through the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. He was also unclear as to the Secretary of Defense’s statutory authorities in relation to EO 11905. Although a member of CFI, Ellsworth protected the Pentagon’s mandate to conduct its own budget process. In his reply to Bush, he pointed to the “misdirected tasking” and the “additional budgeting requirements” imposed on the Defense Department as the cause of the funneled communication from Defense intelligence staff to CFI staff. He recommended that future inquiries be directed to him. Additionally, Ellsworth said he was “somewhat baffled by the suggestion that the CFI staff chair or co-chair what is essentially an internal departmental budget process.” He invited CFI staff to join Office of Management and Budget representatives at the Defense budget review, which was chaired by the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Comptroller). As for the Secretary’s statutory role in relation to EO 11905, the senior adviser to the Department’s General Counsel informed Ellsworth that the Secretary had full authority over the Defense Department and the CFI’s influence began only after the Department completed its internal budget process. Despite the small dustup, the committee never impacted the Pentagon’s or other agencies’ intelligence budgets as envisioned by Ford’s executive order. Ford was defeated in the November 1976 presidential election, and his successor, Jimmy Carter, dissolved the CFI and implemented its own intelligence oversight mechanism.

At the end of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, Deputy Secretary Clements thought the performance of the Intelligence Community had been “disgraceful” in failing to predict the conflict. He tried tackling the complex issue, writing White House Counsel Philip Buchen in October 1975 with several ideas, including restructuring the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to make it “more effective with a tighter organization and fewer people.” Ultimately, the task of sorting out Defense intelligence issues fell to Ellsworth. Shortly after being sworn in, he informed Rumsfeld that he had reviewed the intelligence portion of the 1970 Blue Ribbon Defense Panel as well as those made by the Defense Panel on Intelligence. Based on the observations he made of these two reports, Ellsworth had two objectives in mind for overhauling Defense’s intelligence apparatus to achieve a better intelligence product, and to make sure that the Department’s intelligence activities adhered to the law. To meet the latter goal, he considered establishing an Inspector General for Intelligence position on a trial basis. As part of his review process, he set up ad hoc and steering groups to help him generate ideas. By early February he had circulated a memo within OSD requesting feedback on DoD’s intelligence reorganization.

In May 1976, Ellsworth announced substantial changes to Defense intelligence, which drew elements from the various reports he had read and the recommendations he received from within OSD. At the staff level, the additions included an Inspector General for Intelligence and a Defense Intelligence Board (DIB). The Inspector General for Intelligence was created by a Defense Department directive, which Ellsworth signed on June 30. The IG reported directly to Ellsworth and had oversight authority of DoD foreign intelligence and foreign counterintelligence activities. The Defense Intelligence Board, with Ellsworth serving as the temporary chairman, was instituted on six-month trial basis, after which its utility would be evaluated to determine whether it should remain a permanent fixture. The board was tasked with identifying intelligence consumers’ needs, analyzing the usefulness of the intelligence community’s response, and making recommendations on key issues and problems. In addition, three DIB subcommittees focused on making intelligence more valuable: a users panel, a producers panel, and a resources panel. Some members of the military were less than enthusiastic about the DIB. Rear Admiral Robert Hilton perceived it as “too large and cumbersome with too much OSD involvement.” His perception was accurate. Of the 14 DIB members, six came directly from OSD. Nevertheless, Ellsworth believed that the DIB’s monthly meetings would facilitate the kind of “regular face-to-face dialog” that he viewed as “indispensable for intelligence consumers.  

Ellsworth also announced that the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence would become the Director of Defense Intelligence (DDI) with line authority, meaning that the directors of DIA and the National Security Agency would report through him to Ellsworth. The ASD(I)/DDI would be supported by three Deputy Directors: a Principal Deputy Director; a Deputy Director for Programs and Resources; and a Deputy Director for Intelligence Production, Plans, and Operations. This latter Deputy Director, who would remain a military officer, was dual hatted and would serve as DIA Director. The JCS Chairman initially objected to losing control over the agency. Since DIA’s inception in 1961, the JCS had been in the DIA reporting chain of command. With Ellsworth’s restructuring, however, the JCS lost their line authority. This was the subject of a “great deal of strong discussion” between Rumsfeld and Chairman George Brown. The two men finally reached a compromise whereby the Secretary retained policy control over DIA and the JCS maintained operational control, as solidified in the appointment of an officer as DIA Director. Ellsworth fared less well with the ASD(I)/DDI. Albert Hall, whom Laird had appointed in November 1971, left his post on March 25, 1976. Principal Deputy ASD(I) Thomas K. Latimer was essentially acting ASD(I)/DDI for the remainder of the Ford administration.

The organizational changes to DIA were intended to facilitate a more efficient agency. DIA was condensed from 12 divisions into two sections: Production and Plans. Ellsworth believed this new compact arrangement would enable the Director to focus on intelligence production, collection, operations, and plans. The Pentagon press pool was concerned that the reorganization would result in laying off personnel. At his May 14 Pentagon press conference, Ellsworth tried to ally their fears. The plan itself, Ellsworth noted, “doesn’t cut out any people; that [reduction in divisions] is simply a span of control technique in order to give the Director of the DIA a narrower span of control.”

In December 1976, six months after initiating the changes to Defense’s intelligence apparatus, Ellsworth reported to Rumsfeld on the efficacy of the DIB. Although still in a probationary period, Ellsworth confirmed that members found it valuable for supporting the dialog between intelligence users and producers. However, members had some reservations about the DIB’s impact on decision-making. Remarkably, the board was insulated from advising on policy. The internal debates of the DIB regarding production and consumption of intelligence products were meaningless if the end result of the process had no effect on policy. Ellsworth suggested that the DIB be linked to major policy issues so as to have some influence on them. The members were also unhappy with the sub-panels. There appeared to be too many issues for members’ staffs to contend with, making it difficult to keep up with the workload as well as prioritize those issues that might be relevant for the DIB as a whole. Ellsworth advised Rumsfeld to continue the DIB on a trial basis for another six months. Making some adjustment in the DIB’s mission statement, Ellsworth now wanted the board to review intelligence guidance and offer advice to the Deputy Secretary of Defense for Intelligence rather than concentrate on issues generated at the staff level. Rumsfeld approved Ellsworth’s proposal despite the fact that Ford had lost the presidential election and Rumsfeld, Ellsworth, and the rest of the administration would be leaving office in January 1977. As is so often the case with a new administration, Ford’s successor, Jimmy Carter, and his Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, wasted little time in dismantling the revised structure Ellsworth had instituted. They also abolished the second Deputy Secretary of Defense position. Nevertheless, Ellsworth deserves credit for initiating structural changes to the complex intelligence process.

Ellsworth was also involved in foreign policy. Principal Deputy Secretary of Defense William Clements had recused himself from advising the Secretary of Defense on Middle Eastern policy as a result of charges made after the 1973 Yom Kippur War that his oil interests in the region, stemming from his ownership of an oil drilling company, biased his judgment on American policy. Ellsworth was therefore assigned special issues that Clements was unable to handle, such as Defense’s position on arms sales to Iran.

Since the 1950s, the United States had a strategic interest in Iran for its oil production and its location in the heart of the Middle East between the Soviet Union and the Arab states. Iran, along with Saudi Arabia, comprised Nixon’s “twin pillars” policy in which two American allies provided security and stability in the Persian Gulf. However, for a time, Iran eclipsed Saudi Arabia as the most prominent of the twin pillars. In 1972, Nixon and the King of Iran, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, concluded an agreement permitting Iran to purchase nonnuclear weapons from the United States. Described as a “blank check,” the Nixon-Shah accord precipitated a huge increase in Iranian weapons spending by 1973. Defense Department officials worried about Iran’s ability to handle a rapid military buildup. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, decidedly pro-Iran and a staunch supporter of the “blank check,” stymied efforts to reexamine America’s weapons commitment to Iran.

Ellsworth always had grave doubts about the nature of America’s relationship with Iran, which put him at odds with Kissinger, Ford’s most trusted foreign policy adviser. When Ellsworth was ASD(ISA), he perceived the American-Iranian relationship as “unbalanced”  because the Shah was bolstering his armed forces by buying American weapons while gouging the United States through an oil price hike. Ellsworth’s lack of enthusiasm for Iran irritated Kissinger, who twice told the President that Ellsworth, and the Pentagon for that matter, were “viciously anti-Iranian.” Kissinger’s personal feelings about Ellsworth may have played a role in thwarting Schlesinger’s efforts to promote him to Deputy in 1974. In March 1976 Kissinger’s executive secretary, Lawrence Eagleburger, told him that the Washington Post was going to publish a story detailing how Kissinger had “opposed and defeated” Ellsworth’s potential elevation a few years prior. Kissinger responded by stating, “Just say that it is totally untrue” and that the newspaper could confer with National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, who would corroborate Kissinger’s position. The fact that Kissinger predicated his response with a condition raises questions about his culpability and his desire to keep a potential story hidden from reporters. Columnists Jack Anderson and Les Whitten published their article anyway, claiming that Kissinger’s and Ellsworth’s differences of opinion over foreign affairs was so substantial when Ellsworth was running the Pentagon’s “little State Department” as ASD(ISA) that Kissinger subsequently blocked his promotion to Deputy so as to reduce his influence over foreign policy. The article noted that State Department officials, most likely just Eagleburger, denied the accusation. The unnamed source suggested that if Kissinger harbored any opposition at all that it was more managerial than personal because he viewed another Deputy Secretary of Defense as an inefficient means to oversee the Pentagon. Rumsfeld’s close ties with Ford enabled him to override Kissinger’s objections about Ellsworth and secure his promotion to Deputy.

Once Ellsworth became Deputy and began handling American-Iranian relations for the Pentagon, he was even more emphatic in his disapproval of American dealings with Iran. Kissinger had been trying to implement a bilateral oil agreement with Iran for some time and with as little fanfare as possible. The Shah had agreed to sell the United States almost one million barrels of oil a day off the market and at a reduced price. Skeptics in the Ford administration, such as Ellsworth, perceived it as an “oil-for-arms deal.” Kissinger phoned Ellsworth the day before he was sworn in as the second Deputy to inquire about his objections since he was the “one holding it up.” Ellsworth explained that he faced a two-fold problem. First, the Defense Department only had the capacity to deal with “refined products” as opposed to crude. Secondly, Ellsworth continued, “it is still Iran.” With the agreement remaining uncompleted by the end of March 1976, Iranian Ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi and Minister of Finance and Economy Hushang Ansary met with Ellsworth, Kissinger, and other senior administration officials in Washington to try to break the impasse. The Deputy Secretary of Defense reiterated what he had told Kissinger the previous December: Defense had no program in place for dealing with crude oil and no staff to manage it. If the President ordered such a plan be implemented, however, the Pentagon would develop one. Ellsworth also minced no words when he told the Iranians they were mistaken if they believed that the United States wanted an oil deal so as to “improve our balance of payments through the expanded sale of military equipment to Iran.” Sensing that the meeting had taken a decidedly undiplomatic tone, Kissinger tried to allay Ellsworth’s concerns by restating Iran’s intensions, which were not predicated on purchasing more arms if the United States bought more oil. Ellsworth retorted that he was glad to know that Iran was avoiding linking the two.

The Pentagon’s relations with the Iranian government were plummeting. Only months before, Rumsfeld and Iranian Vice Minister of War General Hassan Toufanian had a terse exchange at the Pentagon. Toufanian wanted lower arms prices and more Iranian oil exports, which had dramatically decreased due to the price hike. He threatened that Iran would seek another arms supplier if the United States failed to comply. The Iranian press claimed that Rumsfeld warned Toufanian not to “get around me. Remember, Kissinger and I have to approve all exports.” Fearing that Iran now faced the prospects of dealing with two civilian Pentagon officials who opposed a special relationship with Iran, General Toufanian tried a bit of personal diplomacy on Ellsworth. He sent a message to Ellsworth through the U.S. Ambassador to Iran, former CIA Director Richard Helms. Helms wrote Ellsworth in April that Toufanian “means no harm and intends no rudeness. He recognizes that he is heavily dependent on you and those working with you, and if he gets carried away from time to time, it is more an excess of zeal than any means of abrasive intent.” Toufanian extended an invitation for Ellsworth to visit Iran so the Deputy could gain a greater understanding of the issues the Shah confronted.

Toufanian’s attempt to woo Ellsworth had been made all the more complicated by the duplicity of a former Defense Department official. In 1973, Schlesinger sent retired Army Colonel Richard Hallock to Iran as his personal liaison to inform the Shah and Toufanian on “analyses on weapons procurement” and keep Schlesinger apprised of the Shah’s weapons buildup and any “problem areas as they developed.” However, in July 1974, while he was still employed by the Pentagon, Hallock’s California-based consultant firm, Intrec Corp, signed a multimillion dollar contract with the Government of Iran (GOI). Hallock was then advising the Shah on weapons purchases at the same time he was counseling Defense officials on arms sales to Iran. He had the Shah’s and Toufanian’s complete confidence, but “intentionally [sought] to poison good faith [in] the U.S.-GOI relationship,” including “[discrediting] Deputy Secretary Ellsworth.” As ASD(ISA), Ellsworth’s concern over Iran prompted him to obtain approval from Schlesinger for a special assistant within ISA to review Defense’s activities in Iran. While Schlesinger declined to make this a permanent ISA office, he appointed Eric von Marbod as a Defense representative (DefRep). Von Marbod was also susceptible to Hallock’s slander, as Toufanian expressed Hallock’s sentiment that the “DefRep’s mission ha[d] failed.” The Pentagon terminated Hallock’s employment in January 1976, but the damage had been done. In February, Ellsworth sent a memo to senior Defense officials cautioning that “in today’s environment it is all the more important that DoD consideration of Iranian requests be most thorough and that we avoid any advocacy role on the part of U.S. officials associated with Iranian programs.”

American “advocacy” continued unabated, however. Northrop had eagerly touted its F-18L light bomber to the GOI. Although the plane had yet to be produced, the GOI ordered 250, complete with accompanying equipment. When Northrop officials met with Ellsworth in September to discuss a letter of offer for the sale of the F-18L, the Deputy made it clear that the United States government had not approved the transaction. By November, the Pentagon still had made no determination on the sale, and Ellsworth told the press that the F-18L would be the “subject of study and review which may result in a qualitative change regarding arms sales to Iran.” In fact, the study was finally completed in May 1977 during the Carter administration. At that time, the Pentagon concluded that Iran’s oldest planes would not become obsolete until the mid-1980s, negating the need to sell the Shah F-18Ls in the late 1970s. In addition, the aircraft had yet to become part of the United States’ military arsenal, so selling it to a foreign government would violate Presidential Directive 13, which stated in part that the United States would refrain from selling or “coproducing weapons until operationally deployed with American forces.” Secretary of Defense Harold Brown recommended to President Jimmy Carter that the United States deny the F-18L to the Shah, who eventually canceled his request for this aircraft.

Ellsworth left office with the Ford administration in January 1977. He was named vice president of the London-based think tank, Institute for Strategic Studies. In 1990 he was the first American to serve as chairman of their governing council. His work with think tanks continued, and in 1994 he was a founding board member of the Nixon Center, a Washington, DC foreign policy think tank, now known as the Center for National Interest. He also co-founded Hamilton BioVentures, a California biotechnology venture capital firm. He remained active in politics, serving as the personal adviser to Senator Robert Dole (R-KS) during the latter’s 1988 and 1996 presidential campaigns. On May 9, 2011, Ellsworth died of complications from pneumonia and organ failure. He was 84 years old.